WASHINGTON -- Seemed awfully tame out there for the longest time.
No wicked blows to the head, inadvertent or otherwise. (Not unless you count Washington defenseman Mike Green stopping a shot with the side of his face, anyway.) No fights, no particularly vicious scrums, no real evidence of the raw disdain these teams have for each other.
Fact is, the first 50-plus minutes of the Penguins' 3-0 loss Sunday against Washington at the Verizon Center didn't look much different than many of the nondescript games played around the NHL every winter.
But that changed after Penguins winger Tim Wallace, playing in his first NHL game this season, fought Capitals forward David Steckel at 7:52 of the third period. And especially after left winger Matt Cooke initiated skate-to-skate contact with Capitals star Alex Ovechkin with just less than four minutes to play.
Cooke was assessed a tripping minor. He also got a cross-check to the head from Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom and a series of punches from Backstrom and Ovechkin, along with a scathing critique of his work by Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.
"It's Matt Cooke." he said. "Need we say more? It's not it's his first rodeo. He's done it to everybody. Then, he goes to the ref and says, 'What did I do?'
"He damned well knows what he did. There's no doubt in my mind that he's good at it and he knows how to do it and he knows how to pick this stuff. We, as a league, still buy into this like it's an accidental thing."
Actually, Boudreau's players seemed to be far less worked up than he was. Consider these reactions:
Backstrom: "I just think it's Matt Cooke being Matt Cooke. I don't think he's trying to show something [about Steckel's hit on Sidney Crosby Jan. 1]. It happens in hockey. He got a penalty for it."
Ovechkin: "I don't know. I think he was frustrated, he wants to do something. It's his game. It's OK."
Center Matt Hendricks: "I've been on the same side on both of those hits. Sometimes, a player is trying to jump out of the way and the guy is trying to finish his check."
As for Steckel, he obviously wasn't chosen at random by Wallace. He is the one who, intentionally or otherwise, dropped Crosby with a hit to the head in the waning seconds of the second period of the swim meet Jan. 1 at Heinz Natatorium.
Crosby, a runaway leader in the NHL scoring race at the time, played in the next game, but hasn't played since. Suffice to say, the Penguins have noticed his absence, even though they are 8-4-1 in the 13 games he has missed.
While Wallace might have been a surprise choice to fight Steckel, it turned out that Steckel had turned down a number of Crosby's other teammates who ask him to drop his gloves.
Nonetheless, Boudreau seemed indignant that any of Crosby's teammates had challenged Steckel.
"He didn't hit [Crosby] intentionally," Boudreau said. "I've coached him for eight years now, and he's never done it once. If they want to used it as a motivating tool, go ahead.
"They sent out a guy they call up. Mike Rupp, who is a fighter, challenging him. To me, it was crap."
That's pretty much the way the Penguins felt about the offense they generated. They threw just 22 shots at Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth, who didn't have to exert himself to stop any of them.
"We had chances to [generate scoring opportunities], and didn't take advantage of it," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We could have been much better."
Brooks Laich gave Washington the only goal it would need at 18:22 of the opening period, when he backhanded a John Erskine rebound past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and Marcus Johansson gave the Capitals breathing room with a short-handed goal at 3:58 of the second.
"That means we lose the special-teams battle," Bylsma said.
And those tend to be decisive in the kind of low-scoring games the Penguins are playing so often these days.
"We're comfortable playing this type of game," center Max Talbot said. "We have the players to do it."
And, he added, to continue to contend for first place in the Eastern Conference.
"We still trust everybody in this dressing room," Talbot said. "The bar is still [set] high."
Just like the emotions usually are when they share a slab of ice with Washington.
"They don't like us," Boudreau said. "We don't like them. That's the way it should be."
Finally, something on which these teams can agree.
First Published February 7, 2011 5:00 AM